Prodigy has met the demands to make more mature music, but instead of growing up in a traditional sense, his gangster personality has matured into that of a paranoid, nihilistic outsider.
The reinvented Prodigy first showed up on one of the key tracks from Mobb Deep’s maligned G-Unit debut Blood Money. His controversial verse on “Pearly Gates” was the first sign that the existentialism that had long been a signature theme in his music had bled into complete nihilism. In the verse -- which ended up being censored on even the explicit version of the album -- P talked about beating Jesus “like the movie [Passion of Christ]” for all of the pain he had suffered. Many dismissed this as a shameless attempt to stir up a controversy, but there was forbidding unaffectedness in Prodigy’s voice.
Once considered in a handful of the top East Coast emcees, Prodigy saw his street cred virtually vanish when Jay-Z, the most powerful rapper on the planet, uncovered childhood pictures of him wearing flamboyant dance attire. Unsuccessful attempts to retaliate turned P’s rapping into a series of obsessed threats that made him look like a dwarf throwing punches at a giant who had become too big to even notice. After three unsuccessful, post-millennial Mobb Deep albums, even the most hardcore fans were starting to wonder whether P’s partner should just go solo. Havoc, the brilliant producer responsible for the incredibly influential Mobb Deep sound, was always viewed as the lesser of the two emcees. When you have three albums on which his are the verses you look forward to, something is wrong.
The gleam of promise Prodigy showed with his “Pearly Gates” verse was fully realized on his solo “mix-tape” a year later. On 2007’s Return of the Mac, Prodigy refashioned himself as a drug-addled, paranoid outsider walking the streets of New York City’s underbelly, always heavily armed, and who wouldn’t hesitate to kill anyone he thought was out to get him. Although really an album, Return of the Mac was promoted as a mix-tape to avoid clearing all of the great ‘70s soul samples Alchemist unearthed to give the album its cinematic, blaxploitaion-version-of-Taxi Driver feel.
Where Return of the Mac’s thematic arc and sampling of era-specific music was more akin to films of a relatively linear filmmaker like Martin Scorsese, H.N.I.C, Pt. 2, Prodigy’s second “official” solo album, plays like a scattershot series of nightmares that are better compared to the works of Brian De Palma or Stanley Kubrick. The association can be made literally -- “New Yitty” uses virtually the same synthesizer sound as the one used in the themes to both A Clockwork Orange and Scarface -- as well as in terms of overall feel. The production on H.N.I.C, Pt. 2 (provided mostly by Alchemist and Sid Roams) switches between traditional sampling and original synthesizer-driven beats; both De Palma and Kubrick were known to use soundtracks that mixed already existing music with original scores.
Prodigy’s lyrics on H.N.I.C, Pt. 2 are too surreal for any coherent narrative to be followed. Most verses contain absurdly violent threats, seemingly aimed at no one in particular. On “ABC”, he warns “I’ll razor blade you up and cut you bad / You gon’ need plastic where your face was at / Boy, I’ll bullet-riddle you up and chop you into parts / And scatter you all over the East Coast…kiko”. The album is also littered with obscure, paranoid conspiracy theories like “It’s a secret Government that worship an owl / They practice witchcraft to harness they power / Pedophiles rape little kids for energy / It’s satanic rituals; WTC, RIP” from “Real Power Is People”.
On “Illuminati”, Prodigy explains “They wanna put me in a straightjacket / In a padded room -- tell the world”. H.N.I.C, Pt. 2 makes it apparent that either he or the fictional character he embodies has been driven to lunacy. From his lifelong struggle with sickle-cell anemia, to practically being left-for-dead by his primary fan base, to the three-and-a-half-year prison term for a gun charge he was about to begin serving during the recording of this album, one can hardly blame P for going a little mad, and the possibility of this being simply an act becomes reasonably small.
Historically, works from maddening artists have typically proven to be more intriguing than relatively conventional, even better, previous works. For that quality, H.N.I.C, Pt. 2 can’t be beat. Despite all of its crazy, nonsensical rhymes, it feels like a fitting glimpse into the mind of Prodigy at this point in time. His recent work has opened a new chapter in the career of an artist who was once one of the most respected in his field. This new phase cannot be fairly compared to his classic, early Mobb Deep days or even, ironically, the first H.N.I.C. -- his voice has grown so deep and raspy that he barely sounds like the same person, and what was once youthful, inspired energy is now weathered, nihilistic mania -- but it can stand just as well as a unique artistic statement..
With consistently good production and one of the most distinctive rapping personalities around just letting his mind run wild, H.N.I.C, Pt. 2 is easily one of the best hip-hop albums of 2008 so far.